December 2001 Convergence

Some of the subscribers to my newsletter are colleagues and associates in health care that I meet with socially but are only peripherally aware of the goings-on in open source software. Many of them have noted how GNU-Linux (usually referred to as just Linux) was supposed to take over the world one year ago and wonder: what happened, where is it? To which I reply: December 2001. Here’s why.

To the casual observer of the computing scene, not much has changed: Windows is still entrenched, MS Office is the de-facto standard and seems to have a continued raft of products such as Windows XP. The uproar in the media for Linux and the valuations of Linux software companies such as RedHat have both subsided. However, to conclude that nothing has changed would be a mistake.

The fundamentals of Linux are still there: it is still a compelling software platform both economically and technically particularly as an Internet server where it is a force to be reckoned with. What hasn’t happened is a takeover of the desktop. There is a simple reason for this: it isn’t ready.

I qualify this with: all of the distributions aren’t ready for the average user. I’ve been using it on my desktop exclusively for over a year now and find it superior in many ways. My wife who is as non-technical as can be uses it also for school and documents using StarOffice 5.2. Then again, she has me to admin her machine. There are some end-user experience issues which keep Linux out of the reach of the masses: 1) Installation of video and sound as well as other installation difficulties remain an issue. 2) Anti-aliased fonts are not widely available through all the distributions. 3) A browser with the familiar Netscape name is not currently competitive. 4) Some application software is either a) not ready, b) not as good as applications such as MS-Office, or c) ready and superior to its Windows equilvalents (see my recent article on scanning) but requires more effort and knowledge on the part of the user to find and use.

Given the current rate of development and release of Linux and other open source applications, December 2001 appears to be the month that a usable convergence of many of the above open source technologies will occur. At that time Linux distributions are likely to have most of the necessary software required in a form that can compete in all areas. Interestingly enough, open source medical computing will also likely have its first viable offerings at the same time.

The most un-certain part of this analysis is a more competitive alternative to MS-Office than last years release of front-runner StarOffice release 5.2 which is growing stale. OpenOffice appears to be moving a long, and is quietly and un-officially predicting a 3rd quarter delivery of OpenOffice which will possibly occur simultaneously with Sun Microsystem’s commercial version of OpenOffice, StarOffice 6.0. Delivery of a competitive version of OpenOffice and StarOffice 6.0 will be crucial to acceptance of Linux on the desktop.

I chat up Linux a lot publicly and privately as editor of Linux Medical News. What I haven’t done is recommend Linux to the average user. All that is likely to change in December 2001.

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